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Music Theory Lesson 2: Range of Notes

This entry is part [part not set] of 2 in the series Push Start Music Theory

reposted with kind permission
from Garbo’s blog
Push Start Music

Last time, we established that Middle C is the musical note that sits in the white space between the top five lines and the bottom five lines of sheet music. The little line going sideways through the middle is a fragment showing where there used to be another line going  through the gap and parallel to the other lines.

And we also learned that people in the Middle Ages decided to take out the line where Middle C sits because separating the top set of lines (the treble clef) from the bottom set of lines (the bass clef)  made it simpler to see what note was on which line. The line vanished but the spot where the Middle C note goes just stayed in the same place. Now it has a little chomp of the old line in its teeth as a memento.

As mentioned in the last lesson, we’re working with the knowledge that the musical scale goes on forever in both directions, dipping lower at one end and rising higher at the other. After a couple dozen notes going either direction, however, we get to audio places where people can’t hear the music any more, then places where dogs can’t, then places where whales can’t and finally we are in the deepest-of-the-deep basso sounds of the Earth turning on its axis and at the treble end, where cosmos-investigators once believed that invisible crystal spheres squeaked out celestial music. And maybe the crystal universe really sings. But only people like the ever-curious Willie Ruff have attempted to capture and translate these compositions.

If we think about it, not many instruments can play all the notes available even after we’ve trimmed the ends of the spectrum away and we are in the realm of listenable sounds. For instance, a lot of band instruments can’t play the really high parts of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” which is why marching bands need piccolo players to do the tweedle-dees.

At the other end of the instrument-size spectrum, we find things like a giant steam calliope, or a church organ with enormous tall pipes, or a steam or a fully-equipped theatre organ. This last can play every note you might ever need, but there actually are so many options that one has to be highly-skilled and highly-experienced to manage all the keys, levers, buttons, and pull cords.

In real life, if you want to sing and/or play an instrument, you’ll use notes within the limits of the human ear. Also then, if you play, you have to be able to get some part of you — a finger, your palm, your heel — on the moving or vibrating mechanism of whatever instrument you have. You can lean left or right on the piano bench, and like Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis or Victor Borge, you can use your elbow or the back of your shoe to whang the end keys but that’s nothing you can keep doing continuously. Even taiko drummers, armed with sticks and trained to have excellent cardio, can only reach and strike the centers of drum heads up to a certain size. More than once or twice, anyway.

Thusly and forsooth, we realize that different instruments have a set limit of notes they can play —  a narrow limit, an expanded limit, or a limit in between. For example, the part you blow into on a set of bagpipes is called a chanter, and it only has a few holes in it. The average piper can play one G octave ( eight-note scale) plus one more A, for a total of nine notes. (Without harmonics, of course — those will be in Lesson 493.) But a theatre organ with three or four tiers of keys can play a lot higher than a bagpipe chanter can, and a lot lower too.

Now to your specific needs, Musical System Explorer! If  Lesson One left you feeling like “Oh, Middle C blah blah blah, who cares, I want to rock out on this cool guitar I got three birthdays ago!” here is the first reason why you want to know where Middle C is:

I’m guessing you probably are not interested in learning to play a multi-tier theatre organ or the Highland bagpipes. I bet that you want to play something practical to play:  the piano, the ukulele, the fiddle, the saxophone, the drums, the acoustic bass, the electric bass, the banjo… Something that has a fair number of potential playable notes but not an overwhelming number. Am I right?

Unless you are going to make up your own tuning system and play music you invent, or unless if you simply want to mimic music other people play (shades of Guitar Hero!). . .
… then you’ll need some way of accessing the basic notes of a tune.

What notes does the song start off with? What do you play after that? You may choose to use written music with notes on the Grand Staff. You may use ABC notation, where alphabet letters, sometimes capitalized or with an apostrophe, are used to stand for the notes. I mean, you can get TAB notations for every piece of guitar music on the planet, but you’ll never be able to improvise or add a little arpeggio to fill in a gap, and you’ll never be able to play along with a friend or with a recording if the other version starts on a different note than the one you start on.

You are going to need to have a basic concept of what notes your instrument will play and whether they are high versions of the notes, low versions of the notes, or middle-range versions of the notes.

As I’ve mentioned, musicians use Middle C as the reference point. Take, for example, this random snippet of a comment in a popular forum for banjo players:

Music books for new students often have illustrations showing you where the range of notes your instrument fall, with Middle C as the reference point.

And as you see from the caption on this last illustration, it’s also super-helpful to know what notes your instrument plays so that you can tune whatever you are playing to the piano or to the instruments other people have with them.

Next lesson: Tunings

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